best music, 2012
Music is one of the strongest ways to connect: to connect across time, across space, with friends, and with strangers. At its best, music is conversation with listening, speaking, and silence all part of the mix. It holds the immediacy of the moment and the wisdom of memory as well as the possibilities of what is yet to be. At a time of year and in a world which now and again may seem rushed, music also holds a place of peace and silence, thought and reflection.
That is what each of these albums offers. You’ll find music with intricately created poetic words and music with no words at all, songs and tunes arising from heartfelt and soul felt connect to land and place, family and history, faith and hope.
In some cases, the links will take you to place where you may hear snippets of the music, and in others links will take you to an article about the album, with links within it which will let you hear the music. I would encourage you to explore these. The albums are not ranked in any order, each of them well worth you attention. Take a listen.
The spirit of the mountains fills Kathy Mattea’s recording Calling Me Home. It is a spirit which encompasses beauty of the natural world, hard life of making a home and a living in the mountains, faith, resilience, history, and unanswered questions. Country Grammy winner Mattea has in recent years been drawn to the songs of her native West Virginia and the surrounding coal country, and to finding her way in to helping these songs speak to a winder audience. She does that here, with notable tracks including Gone, Gonna Rise Again, Black Waters, and Now is the Cool of the Day.
As they have taken their music across the globe through three decades now, Altan have collaborated with artists ranging from Nashville’s country stars to Dublin’s classically trained musicians. For The Poison Glen/Gleann Nimhe though, they decided to bring the focus back home to Donegal, their home country in Ireland's far northwest. Led by fiery fiddling and graceful singing from Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, the members of Altan offer ensemble works by turns lively and thoughtful on music from the tradition, original compositions, and songs that have crossed the waters and back again from Ireland to North America. Look out especially for the New Rigged Ship set, Seolta Gala, and The Lily of the West.
For her album Through Wind and Rain Cathie Ryan brings music that both crosses bridges and creates them, bridges between Ireland and America, between past and present, through loss to resilience and hope. The daughter of parents who emigrated from Ireland to Michigan, Ryan has spent time as an adult living in both countries, and thinking about how their traditions connect and intertwine. For Through Wind and Rain she has chosen and written songs that contain touchstones from her own life, from finding the courage and a spark of humor to cary on after change and loss to encouraging a child to the lasting value of friendship. You will hear a thoughtful storyteller’s heart in Ryan's voice and in the music and arraignments she’s chosen. Look out especially for Mo Nion O, In the Wishing Well, and Fare Thee Well.
Carrie Newcomer is a storyteller with a gorgeous voice and and ear for a fine melody, as well. Her album Kindred Spirits is part retrospective and part new material. To choose the songs, Newcomer looked back over her work with a spiritual focus -- and as ever with Newcomer, spiritual means a broad idea of matters of faith. Even if you are well familiar with her songs, you will find her choices here and the way she has set them in context with each other illuminating. There are several new songs in the mix as well, including the opening track The Speed of Soul, in which Newcomer offers a mosaic of images forming a mediation on time and the spirit.
Rani Arbo and the men of daisy mayhem take matters of spirit into consideration for their recording Some Bright Morning too. “The wind in the trees is a mighty good teacher/ old mother earth she’s a mighty good teacher,” the four sing in Joe Craven’s updated take on the spiritual Hear Jerusalem Moan with which they open the album. Fiddle, percussion mostly on a collection of items including cookie tins and old suitcases known as Drumship Enterprise, guitars, bass, banjo, and ukulele are the instruments they bring along with their trading of well honed harmony and lead parts on songs including East Virginia, Bridges, and Will Your House Be Blessed?
Cape Breton, a land of mountain, forest, water, and music, is the source from which singer Mary Jane Lamond and fiddle player Wendy MacIsaac draw their musical ideas. On their recording Seinn they offer music which comes from the deep Scottish Gaelic tradition of the island and newly composed material which honors this as well. From lively dance sets to soulful ballads to quiet reflection in song and tune, you’ll hear the heart of Cape Breton in the work of these women, and hear why it reaches across boundaries of language and place as well. Look out especially for The Blue Mountain’s Lullaby and Keeping Up with Calum.
The geography of Scotland itself is shaped by its islands, and it is to them that Fiona J MacKenzie turned to draw inspiration for her album Archipelago. Through gathering contemporary and traditional material and writing songs and melodies herself, MacKenzie visits Scottish islands from Shetland to to St. Kilda to Ailsa Craig in songs that evoke the relationship of land and sea known by island people.
Caroline Herring well knows how to evoke landscape and history with her songs, as well. In her album Camiila it is the American south which is her focus, from stories of the civil rights days in the title track to a visit to Washington DC in Maiden Voyage to the land as frame and companion for hard times in Summer Song.
Alistair Ogilvy tells the stories of his people and his home place with his music, too. He is a native speaker of Scots (think Robert Burns poems if you are wondering what that is) and like Herring -- indeed like all the musicians you see here -- he brings a storyteller’s gift to his work on his debut album, Leaves Sae Green.Irish musician Caitlin Nic Gabhann tells her stories through the steps of her feet in the dance and through her concertina. On her album Caitlin she offers sets from the tradition as well as tunes she has made herself. A touch both clear and melodic leads the way through reels including the Flying Column set and the Leeside Sessions set, the waltz Sunday’s Well and the air Cill Dheaglain.
Sarah McQuaid draws on her time spent growing up in the United States, living in Ireland, and her current home base in England to find sources for her songs on The Plum Tree and the Rose. It’s a varied collection, ranging from songs of love and change to a tale inspired by a moment of reflection in Derby Cathedral to another sparked by a visit to Hardwick Hall to a round on gratitude arising from recalling the American holiday of Thanksgiving while living elsewhere.
Nuala Kennedy brings a varied geography to her music as well. The flute player and singer is native to Louth, that land of legend in the east of Ireland. She’s lived long in Edinburgh and recently spent time in New York and in the north of Spain. All of these come into play in the songs as tunes and arrangements she creates on Noble Stranger. She offers intriguing takes on traditional songs as well. Look out for her versions of My Bonnie Labouring Boy and The Banks of the Roses.
Every year in October, the people of Cape Breton Island invite the world home to share their music and to explore the ties that twine that music with the traditions which it neighbors and those from across the oceans from which it springs. The brothers and sisters who make up The Barra MacNeils created ten days of musical collaboration that resulted in ten tracks on The Celtic Colours Sessions.This finds the Barras in their first French language song as they join up with Acadian singer Ron Bourgeois, celebrating the origins of Cape Breton and their family name as they partner with traditional singer Cathy-Ann MacPhee who grew up on the isle of Barra in Scotland’s Western Isles, tracing an Americana and banjo based connections with fellow Nova Scotian Old Man Luedecke, and making fine harmonies with members of another well known family band as they sing with Shay, Michael, Mary, and Frances Black from Ireland.
Take your time to explore this music, let the words and the melodies move you as they will, and listen from the resonances and connections and stories which run through the work of these diverse artists.. Explore other work of these musicians, as well, perhaps here along the Music Road for starters. There’s more to be learned and enjoyed from each of those whose names you see here.
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